When Horses Walked on Water, 1998, The Smithsonian Institution
How did the horse come to Mackinac? The answer is that he arrived here by boat, or possibly, by barge. These animals were transported across the wide waters of the Great Lakes. Most likely they had been navigated upon rivers, as well. When Mackinac became an established fortification, there were no well-made roads this far north. I attended a lecture at the University of Michigan at the William Clements Library, given by by Dr. Art Cohn on underwater archaeology in Lake Champlain. By happenstance, after the lecture, a discussion turned to horses, and his discovery of an 18th century horse ferry wreckage. A few weeks later, I became the recipient of a book by Arthur B. Cohn and Kevin J. Crisman entitled “When Horses Walked on Water - Horse Powered Ferries in the 19th Century,” published in 1998 by the Smithsonian Institution. Fascinating, because for the most part, it deals with the history of “water power” that is sourced from horses.
Although I’ve heard of passing references to horse-powered ferrying, I always thought of the examples of horses towing barges along canals (such as the Erie). The watercraft would be attached to a horse, or a team of them, by several long ropes and the horse would walk alongside the waterway on a dirt path with a driver behind, similar to walking and plowing. There was more to horse power than that. Real, actual horses powering ferryboats were very much in use from the 1810s through the 1870s. The demise of horse power on water eventuated from use of the power from stream. These new engines in boats, and in due course, in rail locomotives, all helped to “dry” the Erie Canal into obsolescence. Also tossed aside is this era of working horses and horse-boats in America. But for a while horse ferries were very much a part of commerce and transportation. People made money off of them; some of them, lots of profit. There were ferry concessions that were highly sought.
The first “horse-boat” was designed and built in the 1600s by Rupert, Prince Palatine of the Rhine, a cousin of England’s Charles II. By the 1680s the British Royal Navy was interested in them and the French Navy engineered them in the 1700s. It was in the challenges of the development of North America by both these countries, however, that brought about the need for transportation of the waterways. In North America, both the Canadian provinces and British colonies were linked by rivers and lakes, and a rather small population was living in the expanses of a very rugged terrain, which was hard to travel through topographically.
So a reliable means of power, the horse, came on board many of these rough boats and were, in fact, the engines for them. The horse was harnessed, and through a series of cranks and turnstiles, the boat moved as the horse walked. In some designs, the horse would go around and around, and another style had the horse in an enclosed area, similar to a narrow standing stall walking in place on a crude wooden treadmill.
A popular configuration for boats was that of a catamaran style; two narrow hulls and a broad wooden platform deck, which connected the two. In the early stages of development, cattle were harnessed on the deck, walking in circles, which would propel the shafts and cranks below the deck. Some designs had vertical paddles, and some had horizontal paddle wheels. Horses became the better animal for power, as they had longer and stronger endurance for the work.
By 1816, on some rivers in America, the horses worked the boats by means of a treadmill. They turned the gears and shafts while walking on a fixed, or in some cases, inclined plane. There was a man who “drove” the animal, pairs, or triples. He would commence them to work by pulling a makeshift brake on the ferry to start the horses moving. The horses wore back straps to prevent breaking loose. But, all in all, these animals had virtually nowhere to go. Most of the horses used for this kind of labor were, basically, on their last legs (of older ages), and many of them were blind, or were blinded. It was a much colder and crueler world in those days for the working horse, who, in many instances, was truly regarded as a machine.
As early as 1807, the horse ferries would put in a workday that marked 20 miles up river. John Brookhart is credited with calling his 40-ton Western river keelboat, Horse Boat. He had tested the craft on both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and he used six horses. Long distance hauling by way of horse boat was not profitable, but operating within smaller and shorter distances was. Perhaps the most successful was John Stevens’ Trimaran in New York. It ran between Manhattan and Hoboken, and cargo included saddle horses (at 12.5¢ per head) and wagons (25¢ if empty and 50¢ if full).
Also during this time, however, Robert Fulton’s steam power engines were becoming quite popular. Mr. Fulton and his partner, Robert Livingstone, soon had a monopoly in the waterways of New York. Yet, the horse boats were attractive to companies who worked under a Fulton franchise, because they were still cheaper to run, and more dependable. Primarily they were transporting raw materials as freight, but they also were used to ferry passengers on a daily basis. If you had the horses and the boats, and the right of way of the waterways backing you, your costs were minimal.
Typical expenses for horse ferries in the 1820s for two weeks were for such items as a bucket, rope, hay, straw, salt, oats, and corn. Payments went for the crew and stabling and pasturing of horses off of the water. The smart ferry owner hired family as crew and had a number of horses that could be interchanged. Boat maintenance, repairs, and tolls were key factors in turning a profit for the owner. By the 1820s, municipalities such as Albany, New York, were granting leases to owners to operate on their waterways. The main freight cargos were anything from livestock, firewood, coal, barrels of whiskey, grains, and lumber. Many boats moved people living along the rivers, as well. More money would be made if the operation ran seven days a week and into the winter. You can be certain that conditions were dreadful, and that many boats were in service regardless of ethical treatment to equines.
Accidents happened all the time. Weight and shoddy construction of vessels were key factors. One of the many horse ferry wrecks was in Lake Champlain. The boat was the Burlington Bay Horse Ferry. The significance of this is that so far, it was the only horsepowered boat on Lake Champlain. It was discovered nearly intact on the lake floor in 1984. In 1989 the wreck was diligently recorded and surveyed, with help from the Division for Historic Preservation. Pieces of strap harness, bolts, partial hames, and even a horseshoe and several halves of iron horseshoes were found.
There is a strong probability that horse-powered boats may have operated on the Detroit River, or on the wild Western regions of the Grand, St. Joseph, or Kalamazoo rivers. But, this is an area that has had very little research done. Perhaps someone will find answers in this gray area. What is known, though, is that some horse boats were in operation well into the 1900s. Most of them were in odd, out-of-the-way locations. The last known operating in service was a small treadmill ferry run by Ike Napier and Morgan Bolton. crossing on the Tennessee River into the late 1920s. The “propeller” was a single blind horse.
Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.